Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Changing the tune does not stop discord

Two decades after its bloody civil war, Bosnia still struggles to find peace and reconciliation. Remind you of anywhere, asks Robin Wilson

For Vedran Smajlovic, home is now Warrenpoint. During the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, however, Smajlovic was known as the 'Cellist of Sarajevo', because of the way the musician defied the siege of the city by playing in public in ruined buildings.

Last week, he was back in Sarajevo, playing at a concert in the Holiday Inn, where many journalists who covered the war were holed up - as part of the events marking 20 years since the siege began.

Sarajevo was a markedly multi-ethnic city, with many mixed marriages among its citizens - principally Muslim, Serbian and Croat, with also a Jewish minority.

Up to 100,000 citizens demonstrated for peace in April 1992, while a vote in the parliament backed independence from the now-collapsing Yugoslavia, precipitating war.

The peace demonstration was fired on by Serbian snipers and two young women were killed. These non-nationalist citizens were driven off the streets, never to return, as Serb paramilitaries and the rump Yugoslav army besieged the city for 44 months.

The 'international community' looked on, fitfully offering meaningless 'peace plans', until it was shocked by the massacre of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica in 1995.

This led to decisive US intervention against the Serbian side and to the Dayton accords.

They were wrung out of the various competing nationalist politicians at the Ohio air force base in November that year.

About 100,000 people died during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, while some two million were displaced.

Last week, in Sarajevo, the 11,541 who died in the siege were commemorated by a sea of red chairs - one for each victim, with small chairs representing the hundreds of children killed.

Belfast is obsessed with commemorating the sinking of the Titanic, but, as its sepia images fade, these more recent horrors in Sarajevo offer more immediate lessons for us.

In the same year as the Dayton accords, the joint Framework Documents on Northern Ireland, launched in Belfast by the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach, suggested that, if both nationalisms - pro-British and pro-Irish - were equally legitimated, under the slogan 'parity of esteem', then all would be well.

Fast forward to today, however, and research on the young 'Agreement generation' would not bear that out.

Last week, in Belfast, at the annual conference of the Political Studies Association - held in the resting place of foreign journalists during the worst of the Troubles, the Europa Hotel - Katy Hayward, of Queen's University, presented her findings, in a panel on reconciliation and dealing with the past.

Dr Kayward said that, with these aspirational discourses still in their competing gullies, students in focus groups she had run were unable to articulate any shared discourse as to the future of Northern Ireland.

Research published just last month found similar political alienation among young people in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

They also complained that segregated schools in the state taught young people from different ethnic backgrounds different histories.

Dr Hayward said that the DUP and Sinn Fein appeared to be able to share power only on the basis that they shared nothing else and this is another lesson from Bosnia-Herzegovina. For the Dayton accords provided - even more than the Belfast Agreement - for mutual vetoes between the competing nationalist politicians.

While devolved government now appears stable in Northern Ireland, it is the stability of stasis.

No significant complete policy initiative has emerged from the administration since the well-regarded Investing for Health public-health strategy published by the then Sinn Fein health minister, Bairbre de Bruin, back in 2002 - to which the current DUP incumbent, Edwin Poots, never refers.

And there is a final lesson from Bosnia-Herzegovina - for the media.

Even though 45% of respondents say their identity is neither unionist nor nationalist - rising to two-thirds of those aged 18-24 - the Press and TV in Northern Ireland routinely refer to 'the unionist community' and 'the nationalist community', when they really mean diverse individuals from Protestant and Catholic backgrounds. The respected BBC journalist Allan Little returned to Bosnia-Herzegovina this month, having covered the war two decades ago.

He regretted with shame "the convenient ethnic shorthand to which we reporters reduced the lives of fully-rounded, blameless and accomplished human beings".

Little recalled coming across an 80-year-old man, one of 40,000 displaced from the central Bosnian town of Jajce, emerging from a wood.

He had asked him if he was a Muslim or a Croat. "I am," the man said, "a musician."

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